VIDEO: Short clip from an interview with Kelly Dessaint, filmed by John Han, about why people drive for Uber and Lyft.
An outtake from Han’s full-length Uber/Lyft/Taxi documentary “Driving for Hire.”
Watch the entire interview here.
VIDEO: Everybody knows that Uber/Lyft drivers come to San Francisco far off locations like Sacramento and even Los Angeles. This particular impact of the “gig economy” has been covered extensively, from Bloomberg to The SF Chronicle and Business Insider, as well as discussed at length in this Uber/Lyft driver forum.
Due to an oversaturated market, drivers need to work long hours to make decent money. So instead of making the long commute back home, only to turn right back around, they sleep in their cars.
One morning, around 4 a.m., I’d just dropped a fare at Geary and Webster when I happened upon this scene. The Safeway parking lot was full of Uber/Lyft vehicles, many of which had sunshades or towels covering the windows.
I’ve seen this situation elsewhere, in other Safeway parking lots, as well at the rest area on 280, just outside the city. It seems that wherever there’s a place to park, there’s a place to sleep.
[Part Four of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
Lauren: Uber and Lyft are getting sued for classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. Did you guys feel like contractors or employees when driving for these companies? Do you feel Uber’s “driver partner” designation is sort of a crock? Did you feel like Uber’s partner?
Kelly: I never felt like anything but a drone driving for Uber and Lyft. With Lyft, it was even worse because they made it out like we were all friends, but in reality, they’d deactivate a driver without hesitation over any infraction. Sometimes you mess up, and the consequence shouldn’t immediately be the end of your job – oh wait, it’s not supposed to be a job. It’s just supposed to be a paying hobby. That’s Uber and Lyft’s narrative and that’s how they’ll play it in court. They can’t be employers to drivers because they’re just giving them a way to earn a little extra money on the side. But they both offer incentives to drivers who log in more hours. After ten months of driving for Uber and Lyft and over two years of reading and writing about driving for hire, I’ll take my corruption straight, no chaser, thank you very much. Uber and Lyft are morally corrupt and hide behind the facade of innovation.
Driver 8: Wow. So you’re simply choosing one devil over the other?
Kelly: Yeah, I am choosing one devil over another because I find one less deplorable. And I have friends. Maybe it’s just the National thing. We’re like a family.
Driver 8: It’s too bad that you weren’t driving a cab in the days before Uber and Lyft, back when the taxi companies held all the cards, back when they’d put a driver out of service at the drop of a hat. Cab companies back then, like Uber and Lyft now, had no appeal system, they didn’t have to offer justification for terminating your job. And, if you really pissed them off, you could be assured they’d make certain that no other taxi company in the city would touch you – you were finished. Now, however, with the cab companies so desperate for drivers, you guys – the drivers – hold all the cards, and they’re bending over backwards to keep you happy, and coming back for more.
Kelly: Why would I worry about doing something wrong in a cab to warrant getting fired or blacklisted? If I like what I’m doing, I do it well. Otherwise I do something else.
Driver 8: I felt no more like Uber’s partner (when I drove for them), than I felt like the taxi company’s partner. I guess I just didn’t feel like either company made me feel like there was any real distinction between me and the driver next to me – it was all about bodies. Sure, because the cab company was a smaller organization, it was more personal relationship-wise. I mean, the managers at the taxi company knew my name – they knew who I was. But, at the end of the day, it was all about how many drivers they could put out on the street. If a driver got into a bad accident, the cab company would (at least) put up an envelope for drivers to contribute cash to the hospitalized driver. If an Uber driver was in the hospital, Uber would probably just send a text saying they’re missing out on big earnings by not being out there driving right now! In either case, if you do a better job than the driver next to you, it’s not like you get rewarded for it; you just avoided being penalized.
With Lyft, I do get a more personal feeling out of every interaction – sugary “fistbumps!” aside. When I’ve had an issue, like when I was assaulted, I felt like Lyft was genuinely concerned for my wellbeing. Still, that only goes so far.
To address the question about employment classification, I personally disagree with the contention that TNC drivers should be made employees. IF cab drivers aren’t employees, then neither are TNC drivers. The cab company had morepower over me: my driving schedule, the requirement to pay the gate fee even if I didn’t drive on a sick day, a specific cab assigned to me that I was required to drive, a dispatcher to obey, an operations manager to duck.
I do not wantto be Lyft’s employee. I don’t want them to have control over my hours and schedule, for one thing. I don’t want them to set my rate of pay, for another.
Kelly: Cab driving is definitely more like a real job. I have a schedule. Which is new to me. I’ve been a freelancer for over 15 years, as a personal assistant, a graphic designer and an online bookseller, among other nontraditional jobs, and the lack of stability can be frustrating and scary at times. Right now, I like the regularity of a set schedule, having to be somewhere at a particular time, after all those years setting my own schedule. While I certainly don’t feel like an employee of the cab company because they have my name down to drive on particular days, I would love to be an employee. I think that’s what we’re losing with this on-demand economy is the once lauded goal of gainful employment that provides stability and a chance to live a decent life with a regular salary and some benefits like health insurance and vacation time.
The biggest thing that sucks about cab driving, as you pointed out, is when you take the cab out, you’re on the hook for the gate no matter whether you’re able to finish your shift or not. You can’t just take the cab back and go home because you’re not feeling it. You still have to pay the gate. With Uber and Lyft, of course, you can log on and off as you wish. That has perks, but again, it can also lead to laziness.
Lauren: Driver 8, have you ever been the pink mustachioed car coming the wrong way up Fell that Kelly was complaining about?
Driver 8: No, but I intentionally drove up Ritch Street the wrong way in a taxi once, because it was faster than driving around the block. In fact, as a cab driver, I’d often drive up one-way streets in reverse, just so my cab was at least pointed in the right direction. Look, there’s no shortage of terrible drivers in this town – Lyft drivers, Uber drivers, private drivers, MUNI drivers, and taxi drivers alike. I do take fewer chances when I’m Lyft driving (since it’s my car, and because of the rating system), than I did when I was driving a taxi that didn’t belong to me.
People often complain that Lyft/Uber drivers don’t know their way around the city, but it’s still a relatively new system, and every cab driver had their first week on the job too. In fact, the last time I flew into SFO, I hopped into a taxi, and the driver had to enter the intersection I live near – a well-known intersection that any cab driver should be familiar with – into his GPS in order to get me home. After all, how many Uber and Lyft drivers are ex-cab drivers? Many, if not most, are coming from the same labor pool.
I think the biggest problem is one of simple courtesy, and awareness, which everyone seems to be lacking these days. Rather than pull to the curb, drivers of all types of vehicles are simply stopping, hitting their hazard lights, and blocking traffic lanes. As the streets become more congested, people are driving more aggressively – there’s more horn honking, and more confrontations. It’s easy to target one group, and point to them as the problem, but I don’t think that is an accurate depiction of the greater issue of San Francisco’s overburdened infrastructure.
Having said all that, I have noticed a certain “Lyft Driver Syndrome,” in which TNC drivers accept a ride, and will suddenly change lanes, stop, or turn unexpectedly, in an attempt to gain a direct route to the pickup location. As we are all increasingly guided by technology, I think this will become an increasing problem, and not one limited to Lyft and Uber drivers.
Lauren: Sounds like the phone zombies stopping in front of me on the sidewalk.
Kelly: True, when Flywheel sends you a fare you have to change directions suddenly and/or figure out where you’re going quickly while you’re in traffic. This is why I hate app-based transportation so much. It’s awkward and inefficient. Flywheel, at least, gives you cross streets when the order comes up. Like a normal dispatch call. So you know if you can handle it or not before you accept the ride. But with Uber, the order comes in and you don’t know where you’re supposed to go to pick up the passenger until you accept the ride. At least I had a hard time figuring this out because I can’t see the tiny print on the screen, which only has an address (which isn’t necessarily helpful unless you know every block number in the city) and whether the ride is an UberX or UberPool. So I understand the hesitation I see from Uber and Lyft drivers when they’re taking orders or picking up fares. They have to process a lot of information through the tiny phone. I have an iPhone 6 now, which has a bigger screen and makes it easier, but with the 4, it was torture to see the information on the phone.
Ultimately, I like the simplicity of hitting the meter and driving to the stated cross streets. I do not like using a phone while driving. Drivers who rely on GPS will always have to use GPS. It becomes a crutch. I stopped using GPS six months into driving. I learned my way around fast to avoid using the phone.
Lauren: Anything you want to ask each other?
Kelly: Driver 8, do you ever feel like a cowboy driving for Lyft? Do you get the same charge driving in San Francisco that you felt in a taxi?
Driver 8: No, I don’t feel like a cowboy anymore. Driving for Lyft/Uber is a little drone-like, to use your word. It’s passive. You just wait for the order to come, and you go pick it up. I do miss the more “active” nature of driving a taxi. It was like being a shark in a constant quest for food. But we overfished the ocean, and swimming endlessly in empty waters lacks the thrill of the old days. You’ll have to ride the range for me now.
Kelly: I like to think of myself as more of a pirate, but yeah, driving empty for hours can get old and tedious. And there will always be more Uber and Lyft drivers to fill the streets and take a larger slice of the business. I have faith that eventually things will get better though. Or maybe they’ll get worse. Either way, it’s more interesting than working at Trader Joe’s.
[Part Four of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
A NUTCASE AND A TRAITOR
Lauren: Kelly, do you think Driver 8 is a traitor for switching to Lyft?
Kelly: Not at all, I think Driver 8 made a valid point in his last Medium post. That was a very powerful statement and one that echoes the sentiments of many cab drivers I’ve spoken to who have switched to the TNC model. Everyone has their breaking point. I had mine with Uber and Lyft and that’s why I switched to taxi. But when I drove for Uber and Lyft, I knew I was a scab. I knew I was doing something wrong. I was a rat, so I drove like one. My goal was to never have an encounter with a cab driver, to never seem like a Lyft or Uber car on the road. I never used the “trade dress,” the pink mustache or the U placard, and cringed any time somebody got in the back, which happened so much with Uber. Because then it would be obvious I was an Uber driver.
While I have a level of pragmatism about the situation, to most cab drivers, Driver 8 is definitely a traitor. When I posted his latest column in a Facebook group for cab drivers in SF, the vitriol was astounding. Even through the internet, you can just see the spit flying from their mouths as they type.
Lauren: Driver 8, do you think Kelly is a nutcase for switching to cabs?
Driver 8: Hey, to each his own. As I said in my first piece on Medium, driving a cab was the first job I ever truly loved, so I can understand the appeal. People make decisions about tech every day – choosing a book over a Kindle, a bar over Tinder, vinyl over digital, or a written letter over a Facebook post for example. Like many young cab drivers, Kelly may not be as concerned with the long-term viability of the job, and can be satisfied with what it offers him today. Now, if he were to consider plunking down $250,000 to buy a taxi medallion, then yes, I would start to question his sanity.
About his time as a Lyft/Uber driver, Kelly wrote he knew he was a rat, and most cab drivers think I’m a traitor. Yet, when asked directly if he thinks I’m a traitor, he replied, “Not at all.” That’s disingenuous at best. I don’t buy it. Why did he feel the need to post my Medium column in the Facebook group for SF cab drivers? Why intentionally draw the attention of my ex- coworkers, employers, and friends, to something that he knew would raise their ire towards me? The act felt malicious. I further submit that it demonstrates his real feelings about my decision, and a personal resentment towards me.
Kelly: Or it could be that I’m just a troublemaker.
You wrote your name at the end of your latest post. Your name was advertised with the conference. I had no sense you wanted to remain anonymous. It would have ended up on Facebook anyway. I certainly didn’t post it out of resentment. Why should I resent you? What stake do I have in all this? I drive a cab to pay my bills, like anyone else, although perhaps I have more options than other people who end up in this industry. I could work at Trader Joe’s. As I wrote in one of my columns, I stumbled into this transportation war. And as a writer, I was inclined to document it. That’s all I’m doing.
Driver 8: It’s one thing to choose to give up my anonymity, however, it’s another thing to go directly to the city’s cab drivers, as a group, and hold me up to them as a target. Do you really think that, if even one of them agreed with just one thing I wrote, they’d be willing to say so, and to face the same scorn being leveled upon me? Intentionally or not, posting my piece on THEIR Facebook page invited a group-think, mob mentality, and created an “us vs. him” dynamic. You mentioned “the spit flying from their mouths.” Were you surprised, or did you anticipate this reaction? Let me tell you, I have a whole new appreciation for cyber bullying after this experience.
Kelly: The drivers in the group disagree with each other all the time on these issues. Just yesterday, a woman cab driver was complaining about those stickers that say, “Lyft and Uber: finally a job for sexual offenders.” A few people ganged up on her and I was quick to side with her because I do agree that those stickers, including the ones about getting hammered, are distasteful, petty and reinforce every negative stereotype people have against cab drivers.
Still, another driver who had switched to Lyft and then came back to taxi was commenting the other day about how much fun it was and that he used to make decent money. The responses were very antagonistic, naturally, and he defended himself by saying that he was speaking the truth. And he’s right. Lyft driving was fun, until the fares went so low it was impossible to justify it anymore. I thought about chiming in and admitting it was fun too, but I didn’t want to face the same scorn. So I understand where you’re coming from. But hey, it’s Facebook. I just don’t take it as seriously as some, I guess. I get attacked all the time. It’s the nature of the game, though. If you’re going to put yourself out there as a writer, you will be judged. I’m sorry, but that is just the cold hard reality of writing. You set yourself up for criticism and rejection. And scorn. And with the internet, you are subjected to some of the meanest things people can say. I avoid Reddit, for instance, because that’s where the lowest scum in the world lurk.
I’m sorry you didn’t appreciate that I shared your post, but it got people reading your work and that’s what really matters. Unless it’s not. But then, why do it?
For a little taste of what I experienced, which is very similar to what you happened, you can read this Medium piece about what happened when someone, unconnected to me, posted my very first Medium article, criticizing and making fun of Lyft drivers, on a Lyft driver group.
Personally, I think all cab drivers need to stop longing for the old days or complaining that if the industry had only been run better they wouldn’t be in this mess. Things are changing rapidly. Whether it’s for the better or the worse, that remains to be seen. We are, after all, dealing with a corrupt city government that has no problem selling out its citizens to tech companies through tax breaks, not protecting the most vulnerable people from being evicted by greedy landlords, letting Silicon Valley companies, who are in a different county, utilize our vastly limited resources (i.e., Google buses on crowded streets) and seemingly making civic decisions either by shrugging their shoulders (“Why the hell not?”) or based on who brings the fattest envelope to the table. So why should they care about a bunch of cab drivers? Without a doubt, though, less regulation of transportation is NOT the answer.
[Part Three of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
TRANSPORTATION AS A PUBLIC SERVICE
Lauren: Kelly, will you share a couple of the fertile fishing holes for taxi fares in the Uberscape?
Kelly: There certainly aren’t many. The Opera House has a designated driveway for cabs, which encourages drivers to line up for guaranteed fares. The hotels in Union Square have designated cabstands. Pier 39. Anything involving tourists. The Caltrain station is good, although Uber and Lyft cars also dominate there. Driver 8 pointed out in his last Medium post that he used to be able to park in front of the Rickshaw Stop and get fares. Then, with Uber and Lyft, he was passed up. I have never once picked up a fare at the Rickshaw Stop in a cab. Never. Even though I drive past it multiple times a night as I head to Soma from points west. When I drove for Uber and Lyft, though, I dropped off and picked up there constantly. It amazes me just how many places there are that I used to regularly work as an Uber/Lyft driver but never deal with anymore now, as a cab driver. Places like the Rickshaw Stop, Urban Putt, DNA, Dear Mom, Double Dutch, Lucky 13, Blondies, Zeitgeist… There are so many…
Unlike Uber and Lyft, though, we are able to accept paratransit cards and work with the disabled. My company, National, has dedicated accounts at numerous financial and law firms in the Financial… After two years of driving, one of those years for Uber and Lyft and one year in taxis, I see that it’s the young people who are taking advantage of Uber and Lyft. Most don’t even know how to hail a cab. I often think: “Are you saying ‘Hi’ or do you want a ride?” Professionals and people who really need to be somewhere are still taking cabs. If you’re just going out to party, who cares how you get there and back? At 2am? 3am? Who even remembers the next morning?
Driver 8: I’m so glad you brought up paratransit, and the disabled, as this was something that deeply troubled me in my final days in the cab business. I became seriously disenchanted and disgusted watching taxi after taxi refuse to pick up elderly passengers attempting to use their paratransit cards (due to the 10% tip maximum), and of driving past people on crutches, or in collapsible wheelchairs, because of the time they’d lose in assisting those passengers in and out of the cab. Sure – now that so few calls come into dispatch and there are so few flags on the street – drivers have no choice but to rely upon these fares to make a living. If paratransit and disabled people are now receiving better service, they have Uber to thank.
That’s only the half of it. Taxi companies and the MTA just love to blast the TNCs for not having ramp vans (wheelchair accessible vans) like they do. Yet, those vans are almost exclusively used for airport runs, due to their extra space for luggage. Work in a dispatch office as I did, and you will hear the passengers requiring ramp vans being told that none are available because they’re all at the airport, or they aren’t even on the street. You’ll regularly hear these customers calling back after waiting for one or two hours, and still not having been picked up. You’ll hear exacerbated dispatchers instructing them to try calling Yellow, or Luxor, because they do not have, or cannot get, a ramp driver to pick them up.
These ramp (wheelchair accessible) vans end up being leased out at a discount to drivers who don’t have the required certification to actually transport wheelchair passengers – meaning they aren’t allowed to pick these disabled passengers even if they wanted to! Despite their higher gas costs – with no additional seating capacity – and their louder, rougher ride (due to the wheelchair ramp modifications), some cab drivers will rent the ramp vans, and their corresponding ramp taxi medallions, in order to get a taxi to drive at a discounted rate. Cab companies will offer these discounts, just to get the ramp vans rented, and out on the street. Many taxi companies have simply returned their special ramp van medallions to the city because they cannot get anyone to drive the ramp vans. It’s disgusting.
Still, I don’t blame the cab companies or the drivers. I blame the city for foisting this important service onto the for-profit taxi companies, and upon the drivers who are then expected to sacrifice earning potential, and to serve this community out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. It’s an incredibly disgraceful and shameful shirking of responsibility on the part of the city, and the MTA.
While we’re on this topic, I’d add that the taxi system also allows for discrimination against minorities, gays, and people with service animals – all of whom have been historically and routinely refused service by many San Francisco taxi drivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a black man, in a suit and tie, trying to flag a cab in the financial district, only to be passed up by a torrent of empty taxis. I can’t tell you how many gay men have recounted stories to me of being kicked out of cabs – in San Francisco!– because of their sexuality. This is a HUGE reason for my preference to drive for Lyft: the combination of driver ratings, acceptance rate requirements, and accountability, ensure that drivers engaging in this type of behavior will be deactivated, not just quickly, but in real time. Whereas, in Kelly’s own words, cabbies don’t have to worry about providing adequate service to customers except to get a tip.
Kelly: Since I went to Ruach Graffis’s taxi school, who is wheelchair-bound herself, you can imagine how much of the class was devoted to studying the ADA. I went into cab driving knowing how important it is to service passengers in need. The way I looked at it, I’d been driving drunks who were pretty much incapacitated for Uber, so the idea of helping people with real problems seemed more rewarding.
I know ramp vans go to the airport because they get to bypass other cabs in line when there are too many suitcases to fit into a regular sedan. It also seems weird to see them trolling Polk Street on a Friday night looking for fares. But I rarely see the disabled left on the side of the road. In fact, I see people in wheelchairs picked up all the time. I went into cab driving with the belief that it is a public utility and it’s my duty to transport the public.
As a night driver, I don’t deal with paratransit as much, but I gladly take paratransit passengers without hesitation.
A few months back, I was on a panel during Labor Fest with a disabled activist who discussed how hard it is to get a taxi to pick him up at his house. He talked about how long he had to wait and how he tried to get the phone numbers of drivers he trusted, only to have the drivers leave the business and being forced to secure another reliable driver. But Uber and Lyft don’t make things any better for the disabled. They don’t have any ramp vehicles at all, much less trained drivers to run them and deal with the disabled.
The changes need to be made through the SFMTA, not abandoned for this new technology that leaves more people out of the equation than just the disabled, i.e., poor people without credit cards and those not willing to have a third-party company have access to their personal details.
What about the people who think Uber is deplorable? The people who want trained drivers, licensed by the city? What happens to those customers if the taxi system is abolished, and Uber and Lyft are the only game in town?
As far as cab drivers refusing service to passengers, you should search “Uber Reviews” on Twitter. Uber is no better. People suck, pure and simple. And as far as not providing service past the point of a good tip: I like big tips. I like making money. So I provide great service. And most of the cab drivers I talk to feel the same way.
The fact is, there is just as much potential for bad service with Uber and Lyft as there is with taxi. Because even if they’re deactivated in real time, there are dozens and dozens of new drivers, just as untrained and biased, to replace them on the conveyor belt of Uber and Lyft driving…
Driver 8: You (and I, when I drove a taxi) are an exception to the rule. You must know that. Yes, I have heard equally deplorable stories about Uber drivers (for one, the Uber driver who would only transport a woman’s service dog in the trunk of his car!). My point is that using the ADA, paratransit, and wheelchair accessible vehicles as an argument is sheer hypocrisy on the part of the San Francisco MTA. But, more to your point about leaving people behind, I recently heard an alarming statistic about the digital divide here, in San Francisco of all places! On one hand, I do worry about people who may not have a smartphone, and cannot access a TNC as a result. However, I wonder if these same people have the ability to pay for a taxi? There is no reason (other than further harm to the cab business) why Uber and Lyft could not be allowed and/or required to accept paratransit cards – city subsidized method of payment for transportation – just as taxis do. Still, that leaves the problem of access, which, I agree, needs to be addressed.
Kelly: The decision to not have a smartphone comes down to more than just affordability, since there are programs that give them out for free to people with low incomes. I know a few cab drivers who took advantage of the program. Ultimately, people should have the choice on whether to add technology to their life. And there are older people who have a hard time adjusting to new technology. As I’ve said before, the day when an elderly couple from Missouri flies into San Francisco and have to purchase a smartphone as well as download an app to get a ride into the city is the day we can officially say this city has lost its soul.
It also has to be acknowledged that solving the transportation problems in this city is not easy. It’s never been. Prior to the 1940s, three different companies ran the streetcars on Market before a measure was written to incorporate them into one city held company to make them run better. This is the beginning of the MTA. And since then, things have only become more complicated. In San Francisco, there are always going to be transportation problems because of how the city was designed. Nobody seems to have any solutions that solve all the problems.
[Part Two of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
Lauren: Kelly, you mentioned that some other professions associated with taxis are also feeling the pinch from the ride of Uber and Lyft. Like hotel doormen. Can you explain that?
Kelly: I’ve heard that doormen are making less because they’re not putting as many people into cabs anymore and receiving the customary tips for their services. I think the same situation would be happening to valets at restaurants and clubs. If people are taking Uber and Lyft to go out and not driving their own cars anymore (I guess this would be more of a reality in cities like Los Angeles), there’s less demand for valets. Or anywhere that usually has someone to open doors, park cars and flag down taxis for customers and then receive tips in return.
Driver 8: I don’t know that I agree with this contention. Doormen in SF were notorious for extorting money from cabbies, and limo drivers too. There were large hotels in the city that I, and many other taxi drivers, avoided because we refused to pay the required bribe to the doormen for rides to the airport. As I alluded to as in one of my articles, should we be concerned about doormen getting tips for hailing taxis – something any hotel guest could do for themselves – or, should we be concerned about providing more reliable, more efficient, less expensive, and (arguably) more pleasant transportation to those hotel guests? Should we not celebrate the fact that doormen no longer have the ability to extort money from working-class cab drivers?
In fact, I am making more as a Lyft driver than I did as a cab driver, and that is after taking every possible expense I incur into account. Further, the non-financial improvements to my working conditions and job satisfaction would still make me choose it over driving a taxi, even if it did mean earning a little less. Regardless, should we be more concerned about the amount of money cab drivers couldbe making if we were to return to the old days, when getting a cab in San Francisco could be an impossible proposition, when service levels were unsatisfactory (to be kind), and when demand far outstripped supply – artificially constrained by government regulation? Or, should we be more concerned with providing efficient, safe, reliable, and affordable transportation, and allow drivers to make their own determination as to whether or not the earning potential is worth doing the job for? If not, no one is forcing them to be an Uber or Lyft driver. Meanwhile, can the same be said of taxi medallion owners, when the city is making it impossible for them to sell their medallions, and exit the taxi business?
Kelly: I don’t feel much pity for the doormen either. And as Uber became to dominate more of the market, they would laugh at the cab drivers. But now they can’t extort as much money from cab drivers for airport rides because people are using Uber, so they’re making less. Does it bother me? A little. Think of Tom Sweeney, the doorman at the Sir Francis Drake, who has been there for forty years. Or the bearded guy at the St. Francis who runs that cabstand like a general. There are and will continue to be causalities as these new technologies develop and make positions obsolete.
Before Uber and Lyft, cab drivers were able to have middle class lives and, through the medallion system (at least under Prop K), have a pension for when they are no longer able to drive. I know many cab drivers who own homes – some more than one – because of cab driving. I know taxi drivers who put their spouses and children through college… taxi drivers who have traveled the world. All because of cab driving. Can you imagine anyone who doesn’t already have those opportunities being able to do that with Uber and Lyft driving?
And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that cab drivers know more about the city and its streets than most people. I take great pride in being able to transport tourists around the city and offer historical facts and anecdotes about the places we drive past. Cab drivers who have been at this 20 to 30 years know the city like the back of their hands, and they collect a vast array of fascinating stories that add to the mythology of a great city like San Francisco. San Francisco will lose more than just a formally lucrative form of employment if Uber and Lyft take over. Because the old time cab drivers won’t go to Uber and Lyft. They’ll leave the business and take their vast knowledge and experience (and amazing stories) with them, instead of passing it down to new drivers who can share it with their passengers and on and on…
THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY
Lauren: Driver 8, you’ve mentioned that you feel safer in Lyft than you did in a cab. But at the same time, you had a crazy episode of a Lyft passenger beating you and stealing your phone. How do you reconcile those two things?
Driver 8: If something nefarious were to occur in a Lyft, or an Uber, there is a record of everything – name, date, time, home address, phone number, GPS location, etc. If something happens, the police know exactly what door to go knock on in order to make an arrest – this goes for drivers and passengers. Plus, the driver isn’t carrying a thick wad of cash in his pocket, making him a target for anyone in desperate need of some quick cash. I believe these are huge deterrents, which give me peace and comfort when I’m working.
In a taxi, however, passengers are predominantly anonymous. They may call from a payphone, or flag you from the shadows – you have no idea who you’re letting into your car with you – and I’ve ended up with plenty of threatening taxi passengers over the years. A few times, I was fairly certain no one would ever see me again. Everyone knows that cab drivers are carrying cash money, and I’ve known a few that were even robbed on their way home after their shift. Even the cameras in all SF taxis do nothing to protect the passenger if they fail to note the cab number, which no one ever does. When driving a taxi, I was always aware of the dangers, and was always on guard.
You mentioned the incident where, ironically, I was assaulted and robbed of my iPhone during a Lyft ride. It’s important to note that this was not done by the passenger ordering the Lyft, but by someone who was traveling with him. But, the thing is, bad things can happen anywhere: at home, on the bus, at work, in the park, in a bar, etc. It’s an unfortunate fact that we are never 100% safe, should someone decide to do harm to us. However, we can make choices that limit the potential for harm, and I feel the choice to be a Lyft driver reduces that likelihood much more so than choosing to drive a taxicab.
Kelly: A passenger can use a fake account or steal someone else’s phone. Nothing is ever truly safe while driving for hire. It’s an inherently dangerous profession. And yeah, I never thought twice about who I was picking up while driving for Uber and Lyft. (Remember when it was called peer-to-peer transportation?)
As I transitioned into taxi, I naturally worried about being robbed or assaulted. But I was trained in taxi school how to deal with certain situations (like getting out of the car), keeping a spare wallet to give to a potential robber and I’ve had enough veteran cab drivers tell me how rare it is these days for drivers to get robbed. Even though it still happens. A fellow driver at National was on the news several months back when he was assaulted by a passenger with a padlock. Around that time, there were other instances of attacks on cab drivers in the news…
I have picked up passengers that other drivers wouldn’t pick up and so far – knock on wood – I haven’t had any problems. But part of being a cab driver is knowing how to deal with any situation that may arise. I like that about the job. I don’t fear the unknown and embrace the challenge. When a passenger gives me the heebie-jeebies, I just start talking. I try to figure out what the situation is and what’s going on in their head. People can walk into a liquor store, rob the place, shoot the cashier and, even with video, never get caught. Like you said, bad things can happen anywhere. But I feel safer knowing my dispatcher is on the other end of the radio and he can summon help immediately and that there are other drivers on the road who have my back.
[Illustration by David Foldvari]
[Part One of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
Driver 8, you were telling me that now that you’re a Lyft driver, you find the cab industry a hard one to defend , that it didn’t really serve the customer… Can you explain?
Driver 8: First, a taxi company’s’ revenue is generated by leasing taxis to drivers. So there is no distinction between a “good” and a “bad” taxi driver, as long as they continue to pay their lease, or gate fee. Passenger satisfaction has zero impact on the bottom line under this model, so there’s no impetus to discipline, to remove “bad” drivers, nor to be concerned with providing a “service” at all. In a commoditized market like taxis, which have little difference between brands, are closed to competition, and under-supplied (as it was in San Francisco), the need for customer retention is non-existent. Had customers been adequately served by this system, there would have been no demand for the rideshares to exploit.
Kelly: When I first started driving for Lyft in February of 2014, the number one thing my passengers told me was how grateful they were to have the Lyft and Uber option because they hated the service they received from cab companies. Everything from stinky, dirty cars, to cabs not showing up when they called and drivers refusing to take passengers to certain parts of town.
When I switched to taxi and saw how rickety the cabs were, how grimy some of the drivers were and how so many drivers didn’t seem to care what their passengers thought of them, I understood clearly why the rise of Uber and Lyft happened so quickly. That said, I know plenty of cab drivers who do take great pride in their work and their vehicles. In an ideal world, there would be someone at the gate who inspects each cab and each driver before they go out and makes sure all credit card machines are in working order. But, as Driver 8 points out, the cab companies have no incentive to properly manage drivers because they operate essentially like a car rental company.
Lauren: You guys were discussing the power dynamics between the driver and passenger in cabs vs. rideshares. Cab drivers reserve the right to say, “Get out.” Ride-hail drivers have to appease riders to keep their rating up. So should industries be more worried about serving their customers or their workers?
Kelly: Uber and Lyft drivers live and die by the rating system. So if they don’t make the passengers happy, they get lower ratings, which can lead to deactivation. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to make people happy. Especially late night drunks. They can be very demanding and may or may not be in their right mind when leaving a rating. And yeah, if you tell an Uber passenger to get out, they are going to one-star you. But with cab driving, you never have to worry about appeasing passengers – all you’re risking is a good tip.
Driver 8: Kelly made my point for me pretty clearly – there’s an inherent lack of accountability and disregard for serving the passenger in the taxi model. Since local taxi fleets have recently adopted an app called Flywheel – which works much like Lyft, and which similarly relies upon passenger ratings – couldn’t the same argument about the burden of passenger ratings also be made? If one proves incapable of providing adequate service at least mostof the time, should they be allowed to continue driving unabated?
My real concern with the rating system (and corresponding threat of deactivation) is the lack of transparency and the absence of an immediate appeal process. The post-ride anonymity of the passenger rating system smacks of passive-aggressiveness, and being denied the ability to face one’s accuser, or to at least quickly respond with exonerating evidence, is fascist.
I’ve experienced this once, and it was alarming, disconcerting, and incredibly frustrating. Your app suddenly locks you out – perhaps while you’re out driving – and you get a message saying, “Your account has been deactivated.” That’s it. You contact support via email – there is no 800-number – and you get an email in reply, saying that you’ll be “hearing from them soon.” There’s no indication of why, of what you’ve been accused of doing, or by whom. There’s no way for you to defend yourself because, you know, defend yourself against what? “What’s been alleged?” “What did I do?” For a driver, depending on this income to pay the rent, or to feed her kids, it’s a nightmare. Imagine if your income has suddenly been shut off, you don’t know why, and there’s nothing you can do about it. To make matters worse, you don’t know how long it will be before they contact you – and the reality is that it might be a week before you hear from them.
My experience was with Lyft. (And don’t even think about going to their office – no one will talk to you – it’s like they’ve received training in driver shunning tactics). I’ve never had to face this with Uber, thankfully. But, I’ve been told, and can only imagine, that it’s even more brutal, faceless, and that you may not even get the opportunity to appeal – that you’re done, and that’s that. However, at least Uber has an office for drivers to go to, and provides them with the ability to speak with someone in person.
Kelly: Look at what happened to Eric Barajas, who was on the Next:Economy panel with us. After speaking out at the conference and questioning David Plouffe, he was unable to receive ride requests for two days. It wasn’t until a reporter from The Examiner contacted them that Uber reinstated his account. They gave a bunch of lame excuses about why it happened, though none held water. They have too much power. More than the taxi companies ever had. Because while you can bring a taxi dispatcher a plate of homemade cookies and get special treatment, or at least be more than just a name on a schedule, with Uber and Lyft, you will always – ALWAYS – just be a number in their system they can chose to activate or deactivate regardless of what may or may not have happened.
Driver 8: Ratings aside, while the taxi model overtly favors the driver, Uber appears to assign the preponderance of value to the passenger. Neither of these extremes are sustainable. (At least, not until self-driving cars completely eliminate the need for drivers). Until then, a balance needs to be struck in which both parties, drivers and passengers alike, are valued and treated as customers. Then you don’t have to choose between a high driver turnover rate, or a high passenger churn rate.
Kelly: There was an article recently on how the Uber rating system makes passengers middle management, in that they are responsible for supervising the workers by rating their performance after each ride. I really don’t like the idea of drunks and pissed off people judging my work. No matter how high my rating was, it was still disheartening to see it go down a fraction because someone didn’t like me for whatever reason. 99.9% of my rides were seamless. I was consistently a high-rated driver and left with a 4.95 on Uber and 4.94 on Lyft. Still, it’s natural to have an emotional response to being criticized and judged. I loathe the rating system and find it absolutely unnecessary: nowadays, people take to Twitter and Facebook to voice their complaints about any and all services they experience. It seems a better system would be to just allow the passenger to inform the company if the service is subpar. The five star system is demeaning.
And yeah, Flywheel has ratings as well, but very few leave ratings. I have only gotten 48 ratings out of approximately 250 fares. And if they did, think about how easily they could blame the driver for a cab with a ragged back seat or a clunky car that he/she has no responsibility over. When you’re a gate and gas driver, you’re stuck with whatever vehicle they give you. I prefer my work performance not be judged by who may or may not be qualified to make proper distinctions.
THE INSURANCE QUESTION
Lauren: Could either of you tell me about what rideshare drivers do after accidents, as far as handling the insurance?
Kelly: Uber charges a $1,000 deductible and Lyft charges a whopping $2,500 deductible. Drivers on Facebook forums almost exclusively recommend not telling anyone you were driving for Lyft or Uber at the time of the accident. You take the “trade dress,” the Lyft and Uber signage down, and try to go through your personal insurance. This is what both companies tell drivers to do. Only if the claim is rejected by their personal insurance do they go to James River Insurance Company, which, I believe, both Uber and Lyft use.
Driver 8: Kelly’s contentions mainly apply to rideshare drivers who are driving without policies designed and/or approved for transportation network company drivers [the legal designation for rideshare companies] driving, and is somewhat out of date. The passage of CA AB2293 required Lyft and Uber to uniformly improve their liability coverage, and to expand coverage to the time the driver first opens their app. From Uber’s website: “Under the new California law, automobile insurance that rideshare driver partners currently maintain under their personal policies will no longer apply while a driver is logged in to a TNC app, unless the driver has purchased insurance that covers ridesharing.” However, Companies such as Farmers Insurance, Esurance (Allstate), and Metromile, already offer policies specifically designed for Lyft and Uber drivers wanting additional coverages beyond what is provided by their TNC’s policy.
The ONLY reasons a driver would want to hide his or her trade dress would be in the event that they were knowingly committing insurance fraud, either by deceit, or omission, or if they were attempting to hide an at-fault accident from Lyft or Uber, in an attempt to avoid deactivation. Otherwise, making an unnecessary claim on one’s personal insurance policy would be costly, and would make no sense.
To specifically answer the question, of what drivers are instructed to do in the event of an accident (from Lyft):
If you experience an accident, or an issue which threatens your personal safety, make sure to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself and get to a safe place. If necessary, call the authorities by dialing 911 or your local non-emergency assistance line, and then call our Critical Response Line. We’re available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Check for injuries. If possible, move cars to a safe place, away from traffic. Record the other driver’s license plate number, make, and model. Exchange information with the other driver (license, phone number, insurance policy number and carrier) *Both Lyft and Uber’s insurance policies may be accessed through their respective app. Find any witnesses, and ask for their names and numbers. Take pictures of the scene and any damage. Call the necessary authorities – they’ll know whether it’s appropriate to send help. Notify Lyft. For minor accidents, please alert us via email. Our dedicated hotline is here for emergencies.
Kelly: It’s a totally different situation for drivers with policies that cover Uber/Lyft driving. However, most drivers do not carry commercial insurance. Uber and Lyft like to boast how many part time drivers are on the platforms. I’ve read numerous posts on Facebook where drivers have counseled other drivers to lie about driving for Uber/Lyft when in an accident to avoid the hassle of dealing with James River (I collected this information for a reporter), being deactivated and/or paying the deductibles (which are criminal, in my opinion seeing as how the deductible on my personal policy is only $500). I’ve talked to numerous drivers who have been in accidents and had horrible experiences and gofundme.com is filled with drivers looking to crowdsource their deductibles or pay for repairs that occurred with driving for Uber/Lyft… I have talked to cab drivers who’ve witness accidents with Uber/Lyfts and seen the drivers remove the placard. I witnessed an accident on Oak and Stanyan where the Uber driver tried to lie about being one, even though a passenger emerged from the back seat! And I personally know an Uber driver who hit a Lyft car and totaled both. When I asked how it was going dealing with Uber’s insurance, he said, “What are you talking about? I went through my own insurance. They cut me a check last week.”
In a cab – based on my personal insurance at least and what I’ve seen in the 10 months of cab driving – when you get in an accident, you call dispatch, deal with the situation and fill out some paperwork. In my third week of cab driving, a driver knocked my side mirror off and drove away. Yeah, I had to go to the police station, fill out paperwork, take the cab back to the yard and fill out some paperwork. But when I was finished, the dispatcher asked if I wanted a spare to go back out and work. How long will an Uber/Lyft driver be out of work when they get in an accident?
While Driver 8 may be doing the right thing by having a policy that covers his activities, most do not and are committing insurance fraud. And carrying adequate insurance also cuts into profits, something Eric Barajas, who was on the panel with us, pointed out.
Driver 8: Again, some TNC drivers may make irresponsible decisions, such as committing insurance fraud in order to save money. No one is saying this is a good idea. If, claiming an accident on your own insurance, and paying the rate increase you’ll face, makes more sense than paying the deductible on Uber, or Lyft’s policy, then have at it. (Of course, this really only applies to accidents in which the Uber/Lyft driver is at fault anyway). As to downtime, at least two companies that I know of, Hertz and Peers, offer cars pre-approved by Uber/Lyft, for temporary use if your personal car is made unavailable due to damage and/or repairs. (The Peers plan works like insurance, and costs $20.00 a month – less than one ride to SFO).
Kelly: Even if the driver is not at fault, if they go through Uber’s or Lyft’s insurance, they have to pay the deductible. Again, $1,000 and $2,500 respectively. That’s insane! If I’d had an accident while doing Lyft and had to pay that much money to get my car back, I would have been screwed. Drivers are barely making enough money as it is.
Driver 8: If someone else wrecks your car, their insurance covers it, not Uber’s, and you get 100% reimbursement. Deductibles only apply to claims against your (or Uber’s) insurance policy.
Kelly: Not if the other driver sees that placard and tells their insurance company I was a TNC driver. There’s no way the insurance company would cover the claim under those circumstances. How odd that you are somehow aggrandizing insurance companies, that are only out to make money, and the only way to make money is to NOT settle claims. They’re looking for any excuse to not pay out claims, and a driver committing insurance fraud would be an ideal reason to reject the claim. I’m from Los Angeles. I drove a car there for 10 years and had been in several accidents. And I’ve known dozens and dozens of people who have been in accidents. Insurance companies are not to be trusted.
Driver 8: On the subject of accidents, taxi supporters often speak as though they have a corner on the safety market. But, for every Uber horror story, I can point to an equally tragic or horrific taxi story, like here, here, here, and here. I just think it’s pretty obvious that the media just loves to pile on the rideshares, even when the story is of absolutely no consequence, such as here.
Kelly: This argument is flaccid at best. Taxis have been around longer than Uber and Lyft, so the number of accidents would be relative to the timeframes. When Uber and Lyft started, there weren’t as many cars on the road (like back in 2012, which two of the links you provided are from). Now, we’re seeing an increase in the numbers of TNCs on the road rise to five times the number of cabs in San Francisco, and as a consequence, we are seeing WAY more incidents with TNCs than taxis. And we’ll continue to see more as inexperienced drivers, unfamiliar with the city streets, flock into San Francisco on Friday and Saturday nights to make the “big bucks.” There are accidents almost weekly with TNCs that go unreported. I’d be happy to present plenty of evidence to back up that claim. Remember, the cab drivers on that beloved FB group just love to document Uber and Lyft drivers messing up.
[Illustrations by David Foldvari]